Nate glanced at his sister as she arranged herself so he was in the middle of both ladies. She took his arm without thought, leading him to feel obliged to offer his other to Sylvia. He ignored the jolt he felt when she placed her hand on his coat. Just as he had been ignoring the desire to carry her in his arms once more.
“I would love to walk the grounds in the Spring,” Alice said.
“They are most delightful. Clara always had a green thumb.”
“I am sure the duchess,” Nate stressed her proper name, “is skilled at many things. However, I doubt she tends to the gardens herself.”
“You are wrong,” Sylvia said. “As long as I have known Clara, which has been since I was ten years old, she has always gardened. I do not just mean watering a few pots of flowers in the greenhouse.”
Nate could see from the tilt of Sylvia’s head and the approving smile she gave as she spoke that it was one of the things she most admired about her friend. However, a duchess digging in the earth? His own mother had been a duchess and had done such things—she delighted in their country estate after having lived most of her life in the stone-filled austereness of the cities in the North. He recalled one of the times he had proudly talked of her abilities when so-called friends from school had visited. He had quickly learned that there were social norms and his family did not fit.
“How marvelous,” Alice said on Nate’s other side. “Our mother would garden like that.”
“Oh, you mean Clara is not the only duchess in the world to have soiled her hands?”
Nate knew Sylvia did not mean the words in a negative way. Indeed, he doubted she knew about his descent. However, Nate could not help the old hurts from long-ago re-emerging.
“Our mother did not grow up on an estate,” Alice’s voice dropped. “When she married Father, she loved being out of doors. She would walk and ride all over the estate. She worked in the garden every Spring. She would even visit Father in the work fields.”
Nate glanced at Sylvia to see her reaction to his words. That she was surprised was evident enough. However, she quickly calmed her features and spoke with easiness.
“It sounds like I would have enjoyed knowing them. They seem like very honorable and kind-hearted people who served their tenants and land well. You must miss them terribly.”
“I can hardly remember my mother,” Alice said in a hushed tone, allowing Sylvia a rare glimpse into the sorrow which could easily hang on her.
“I have also lost my mother,” Sylvia said in a gentle voice. “It is impossible to really recover from the blow. I hope yours lived long enough to see you become the lady which you are. I believe my own only felt disappointment in me.”
“I am sure that cannot be,” Alice hastened to say.
“Oh, it is true enough, and I do not mind saying so.”
“Surely,” Alice said a bit forcefully, “she loved you and Mr. Linwood.”
“Owen was always her pride and joy. I know she loved me.”
Sylvia sighed, and Nate could feel some of the anxiety leave her frame.
“I know Mama loved me. However, she envisioned a different sort of life for me. It is of little consequence, though,” Sylvia said cheerily. “I am not the sort that would live her life according to the demands and expectations of others.”
Then just why was she attempting to ensnare Brandon?
“It is sometimes difficult to know how to balance the wishes of others with our own desires. One hopes to have proper respect for their elders but must also remain true to themselves,” Alice said pensively.
Nate looked at his sister. Did she mean that for herself? When had he said she must sacrifice her own desires for his?
“I sometimes think it is a blessing that our parents passed before Owen, and I gained our majority. We do not feel beholden to the demands of duty.”
“A man who does not take care of his duty will rob his legacy,” Nate sneered. His father had not cared about his duty, and now the Russell name was besmirched.
“Owen sees to his duty,” Sylvia said. “He just does not allow someone else to think for him.”
“You mean he is so arrogant he does not care for the counsel of others?” Perhaps that is why Sylvia was so eager to marry the greatest dollop-head Nate had ever known.
“Mr. Linwood is one of the humblest, gentlest men I have ever met,” Alice said at Nate’s side. She pulled roughly on his arm, causing him to cease his movements.
Nate peered down at her. Alice touched her temples. “Are you well?”
“A sudden headache,” she said. “Perhaps I should return to the house.”
“Allow me to escort you,” Nate offered.
“No, I would rather you remain here.”
“I will keep you company,” Sylvia said at his other side.
“Thank you, but I would hate to take you from the exercise. Please, you two go on, and I will meet you later after I have rested.”
Nate watched as his sister left. “I hope she is well,” he muttered to himself.
Sylvia snorted. “As you are self-proclaimed to not be as arrogant as my brother, allow me to give you some counsel. That is what an angry sister looks like.”
“Thank you for your wisdom,” he rolled his eyes but replaced her hand on his arm—for it surely did not belong elsewhere—and resumed walking. “It is not my first day with her. I suppose she enlisted you to help present your brother as a viable suitor.”
“No, that is for him alone to do. I was only asked to cease avoiding your company.”
“Were you doing that?” He hated the way his voice changed at the thought. It signaled too much to Sylvia for her expression softened.
“I thought I merely satisfied the preference of both of us.”
“You should not assume the opinions of others.”
“You cannot mean that you enjoy my company.”
Did he enjoy being with Sylvia? He was unsure if he knew what it was to enjoy anything. He relished their encounters. Each had been unique and unlike anything he had ever experienced before. He had begun to even crave them. Afterward, when the exhilaration wore off, he saw how he always betrayed his intentions and ideals. However, on each occasion, she had exposed a part of him he had thought was long dead. No, it was not entirely enjoyable, but it felt nearly as necessary as breathing. He settled for a vague answer. “My opinions are my own, and surely I have a right to that.”
“Because you are a duke.”
“I would say every person has a right to their own feelings. I, for example, would not go around asking why you are avoiding my company—”
“That would be easy to explain—”
“For the presence of another gentleman.” Nate raised a brow and waited for Sylvia’s answer.
She opened her mouth, said nothing, then closed it. Finally, she sighed. “I see your point.”
Wonders would never cease, he mused to himself. Sylvia looked none too pleased with the admission either. A smile tugged at his lips. It was not very gentlemanly of him to enjoy riling her so much, but then he had never had such an adorable foe.
They were a considerable distance from the house now, and the garden path meandered to a well-manicured lawn before continuing on through a wooded area. Expecting Sylvia to desire to return, she surprised him. “There is a glen I always enjoy visiting, although I have not yet seen it in winter. Would you mind if we continued?”
Nate agreed. As they approached, he perceived the space held some reverence for her. Sylvia released his arm and nearly ran when a brook came into view. She reached the edge and just when Nate thought she might heedlessly dash into the water despite the cold temperature and unseemliness of it, she stilled. He watched her as this woman who he had always seen in motion or doing something, stood before a narrow and shallow brook with as much awe on her face as one might when they first view the sea.
He could not tease her, however. Was there anything in his life which pulled him from his usual movements and made him take notice of them? Nothing besides her, he realized.
Sylvia turned her head toward him and motioned for him to approach. He had not thought she would like the intrusion. He stepped forward wondering if the same awe would fill him, but it did not. In a whisper and what he hoped conveyed his sincere desire to know more about her, he asked, “What is it about this place which delights you so much?”
“I love all forms of water,” she shrugged.
Nate looked her for a moment. “There is more to it than that.” He wanted to know the intricacies of her mind.
She returned his assessment, seemingly wondering if she could trust him.
“I will not tease you for your thoughts,” he said encouragingly.
Rather than immediately believing his words, the words of a duke, as nearly everyone else he ever met would, Sylvia tilted her head to one side. She had a small, crooked smile on her face as she did so and an impertinent gleam in his eye. Considering how much he hated Brandon for his continued disrespect although Nate was superior in consequence, he enjoyed Sylvia’s cheeky displays and coveted her good opinion. She did not bestow it upon everyone, making it more worth the earning.
“Nate, how long have you known Stephen?”
“I have never understood why men do not use their given names to refer to one another even when they are close friends.”
“I suppose some do—perhaps if they were friends as boys and still are. Or perhaps if they are the younger son with many brothers.” Nate shrugged. “I have no brothers, and I did not meet Clifford until just before he wed his wife. We were both full grown by then. Besides, few people are so informal with a duke.”
“So, no one calls you Nate?”
“Just my sister…and you…”
Sylvia blushed, adding to her beauty. “I should not.”
“You should as I have asked it of you and it would be rude to disregard a duke’s request.”
She sighed. “Must you bring up your rank at every opportunity?”
“To me, it seems you do. I cannot believe you do that with Stephen. He does not care for such things.”
No, his friend did not. In truth, Nate only did so with Sylvia for he had to remind himself why she was unsuitable for anything more than puzzling out her mystery. He would not even think her appropriate as a friend for his sister. However, he did not respond to her statement. She did not seem to notice.
“I met Clara many, many years ago. I was a small child, taken from her family, and sent to school. I was a little young for it, but it was my own fault. I completely exhausted my poor mother. Of course, as Owen and I are twins, it was only right that he was sent away too. We had been partners in all things, although in my mother’s mind our mischief had always been my fault.” She shrugged, as though it might be true or that it did not matter to her now what her mother believed. “I sorely missed him and had no friends at school until a few years later when more girls my age began to attend.”
“It is difficult to be lonely at school.” He knew it all too well. “Was the duchess a friend to you, then?”
“Lord, no,” Sylvia snorted. “No, we hated her! She was so mean and cold. It was only meeting Stephen which changed her. After that, my friends and I, we…” She shook her head. “It is unimportant. The school grounds were on Stephen’s estate, although he was not the master or even in the country at the time. There was a tenant house near the school. There was a girl, Anne, near my age. I could play with her sometimes.”
Nate watched as Sylvia chose to sit on the cold grass. She tugged on his hand to copy her, and against all reason he did.
“We were never rich at Ashford, but I had never been in a tenant’s house. I did not understand the difference in their lifestyles. Anne invited me to her home. It was cold and drafty. The roof needed patching, and the window needed fixing. I remember being amazed at their only having one window and one large front room. Although the stove took up much of the space, it seemed so cold. Their thin and worn clothes were no comfort against winter air. The same need of repairs which made life difficult in winter, hurt them in the summer.”
Sylvia shook her head. “Stephen’s brother was not a mean man, but he was not a very interested landlord. I hope you take better care of your tenants.”
“I certainly try,” Nate stiffened. He felt an inferior landlord to many, like Stephen. Accounts of rents and harvests did not come naturally to him. The concerns of their lives seemed strange to him. He heavily relied on his steward.
“Anne grew sick. They had no money for an apothecary and refused to ask for the master to send for one.”
She paused for a moment and wiped a tear from her eye. “For a long time after Anne’s death, I had thought all masters except for my father were cruel. He had died while I was at school and my mother hired a steward to run the estate while my brother was not yet of age. The man was mean and miserly.” She shuddered.
“After Clara married, she had invited a few other girls and me to visit. We were walking along this path when we found a small tenant boy. He had slipped in the brook. His leg was broken, but he had also hit his head. He could barely whimper for help. He was incapable of crawling out. Of course, a few of us retrieved him and then sent the others to get help from the house. Clara and Stephen came out themselves. They mended him, carried him to his home, sent for the surgeon and apothecary, comforted his mother and reassured his father. It was plain to me the boy’s family already loved and respected their master, but after such treatment, the Cliffords had their undying loyalty. For the remainder of my stay, I accompanied Clara on visits around the estate. I would sit with her when she sewed for someone’s new baby. The tenants did not live as high as a duke, and they would have refused any unnecessary charity for they had great pride, but there was cooperation between master and tenant.”
Sylvia drew her knees up to her chin and rested her chin on them as she wrapped her arms around her legs. “Stephen has never had a tenant leave although the prospects in the Northern mills seem so great. He has lowered the rents when times are lean, knowing that he would rather keep the good, honest, hard-working people he has than risk having to take new tenants. He knows amongst his current set that if he ever needed to take on more or fill a vacancy, they would recommend him as master far and wide.”
Nate had listened in wonder as she told her story. It was highly unusual for women to care about such things, and yet it did not seem out of place for Sylvia to care so much about others. He had valued Clifford’s friendship and respected his friend as a master, but to hear his qualities repeated from a third party made Nate proud for his friend. Could he measure the same in Sylvia’s eyes? Nate doubted it. He knew nothing about his tenants. The mills in the North took all his focus.
“I have displeased you,” Sylvia said.
“Not at all.”
“You are frowning, and there are great lines of agitation upon your face.”
Nate chuckled. “Great lines of agitation? Sylvia, I do not wonder at your ability to decipher such a look. I suppose you have often seen it directed at you—although, I think I can promise you never will from me— it is not quite proper to tell a duke he looks ugly.”
Sylvia unfolded her knees. “I am not a complete idiot, and my eyes see perfectly well. I would be a fool or a liar to say a man as handsome as you is ugly despite the displeasure you bear.”
A slow smile crept across his face. She thought he was handsome? “It is not for you to worry about the cause of my annoyance. Forgive me, for being so unguarded and making you think it was about you.”
He stood and held his hand out to her. She rested her petite hand in his, and a thrill coursed up his arm. He needed that to stop and yet wanted it to continue. He placed her hand on his arm, enjoying the light pressure and the tingle of awareness he felt from her touch and her presence at his side.
“I will not forgive you, Nate.” Sylvia raised her chin. “I think you should be unguarded more often. It makes you almost human.”
“What am I when I am not? A ghoul or goblin?”
“I fear I do not know the mythological creature that could describe it. You are morose and unsmiling. You move through life, but you do not live it. You may be perfect and flawless while living that way, but I do not think you find any enjoyment.” Sylvia covered her mouth with her free hand, and her eyes widened with surprise. Dropping her hand, she said, “Pardon me. My mouth runs away from me so often when I am with you.”
His eyes dropped to her lips, and a jolt of desire coursed through him at her words. How he would enjoy their soft, sensual exploration of his flesh. Clearing his throat to dispel his lustful thoughts, he said, instead, “If you will withhold forgiveness, so shall I. I do not wish for you to be anything but yourself when we speak.”
Sylvia smiled, but it soon faltered and dropped entirely. They remained silent until they reached the house. He had been attempting to think of something to say. What could he say? That he could not court her but wanted to spend as much time as possible in her company? That he hoped they would meet again? Was it even possible for bachelors and maidens to be friends? And why was that word so disappointing?
When the house came into view, Sylvia dropped Nate’s arm. It was just as well because Brandon awaited her in the entry. A glare from his old enemy made Nate stand his ground at her side, but Brandon soon scurried the gem he had discovered away. Nate clenched his fists. Brandon could not even enjoy the diamond he had found. She could never shine as she deserved if she were thrust in a cabinet and taken out only for special occasions.